Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Till Rockenbauch

Till Rockenbauch

Till Rockenbauch is a research associate / PhD candidate at Bonn University with a background in development and social-ecological system research. He is a geographer by training and has worked with Deutsche Gesellschaft für International Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) as an advisor on food security and agricultural policy. Within the TransRe-project he works towards a social network perspective on rural resilience to environmental risks.

Nov 14th 2014 by Till Rockenbauch

Lost in relations? Some general thoughts about the social network metaphor

Social networks have become one of the “buzz words” of the last decade. In the age of economic and social globalization social networks have not only become a major paradigm for understanding, but also for organizing society.

In science, social networks have been applied in virtually any context. Of particular interest for the TransRe Project is the emerging scholarship on the social network and resilience. Here social network analysis is increasingly used as a tool to understand processes of governance or agricultural innovation. Migration research has also embraced the notion of social networks in meaningful ways--for example, as an approach towards understanding the dynamics of chain migration as well as a method for capturing the social emebeddedness of migrants in transnational networks. In particular, the emerging concept of translocality refers to migration induced networks as a constitutional part of translocal livelihoods.

This blog post argues that while a social network perspective has its advantages, we must take a more critical stance. This is particularly pressing, as the social network metaphor gains in popularity, not only in science, but also as a paradigm to organize society.

In its simplest form social networks can be defined as a set of social actors (“nodes”) and the relations (“social ties”) between them. Social network research is an emerging discipline that perceives neither individual nor structural categories, but social relations as the basic unit of analysis. Originally emerging  from sociology and anthropology , the social network perspective has been applied in a wide array of disciplines, where relational thinking has contributed to a nuanced understanding of how social structure shapes social behavior and vice versa.

One reason that social networks research is so popular is that there is no comprehensive network theory, but a loose collection of sophisticated methods. These methods are appealing because they can be applied from natural to social sciences. Due to this strong emphasis on methods it seems network research is free of any ideology. But if one looks more closely it turns out not to be that way at all.

Economic bias

Although social network research rejects categorical explanations of human behavior, it frequently incorporates categorical concepts. Indeed, it is heavily influenced by economic thinking and concepts such as the “homo economicus[s3] ” are “smuggled” into the explanation of human behavior. Drawing in particular from rational choice theory, network actors are frequently considered “utility maximizers” networking for the “right connections”.

Many of the concepts used in social networks research stem from economic research. A case in point: Granovetter’s famous notion of the “strength of weak ties”, which revolves around research based in the world of business. But what makes us so sure that we can transfer insights from a corporation to a whole society? The same can be said for another popular conceptualization of networks, “social capital”. The idea behind “social capital”, as defined by theorists such as Burt, is that particular actors perform better than others due to their more favorable embeddednes in social networks. This instrumental perspective on social relations runs the danger of reducing social interaction to outcomes in economic terms.

A blind eye on power

The economically-biased picture is accomplished by the widespread notion of networks as an alternative mode of governance between markets and hierarchy. And here it becomes political. Today, social networks are in many cases referred to as a blueprint for societal organization and even more as a panacea to govern and navigate societal conflicts. Instead of uncovering the root causes of social and environmental problems the attention gradually shifts towards the question of how to design social structures that promote desirable economic, environmental or societal outcomes.

Mainstream network analysis turns a blind eye on power, unfortunately, because in the so-called “network society” power matters more than ever. In a globalized world, where everything and everybody could potentially be connected via the use of information and communication technology, the question of who or what is allowed to connect and, even more, the question of who defines what constitutes a “node” and a “tie”  is a highly political question.

Networked Individualism

Finally, the idea of a society that consists of nodes and ties, even in its purest form, is anything but free from ideology. It reduces the idea of the social to nodes and ties and therefore neglects any other form of sociality that doesn’t fit the network axiom. Instead of offering an alternative to Individualism it fosters Individualism, to be precise, a “networked individualism”.

In his blog post, “The tyranny of nodes,” Ulises A. Mejias, Professor at the State University of New York, Oswego, puts it this way:

“[…] to the extent that the network is composed of nodes and connections between nodes, it discriminates against the space between the nodes, it turns this space into a black box, a blind spot. In other words, networks promote nodocentrism”

Putting the relational into relation

Taking relational thinking seriously does not imply getting lost in relations, but rather putting it in relation to other existing approaches to explain and organize society. I am sure there is plenty to draw on from the relational perspective for both research and politics. But it is our responsibility to reflect on why and how we are using the network metaphor, and finally what societal consequences this might yield.

(Picture: A. Lamb, under CC BY 2.0)